Caitlin Flanagan Is Indefensible

Give Caitlin Flanagan this much: her April Atlantic cover story bashing nonpublic schools is a marketing triumph. Controversy sells magazines, and what’s more contrary than slamming private education at a moment when unionized public schoolteachers do so much to vindicate it? COVID closures, postmodernism, and 1619-style pseudo-history increasingly drive parents to seek refuge for their kids in independent institutions. Flanagan is attacking that refuge; and judging by the copious Twitter likes and retweets alone, it’s a canny move.

Flanagan’s commercial win is, all the same, a journalistic failure. In “Private Schools Are Indefensible,” she mainly derides these academies not for their faults but for their merits: they raise money well beyond the tuition that parents pay; they award “generous financial aid” to nonaffluent students; many have state-of-the-art teaching facilities; most have been holding in-person classes since last autumn. The real problem Flanagan identifies is the prodigious gap between the quality of education available to rich kids and that saddled upon poor ones—something more justly blamed on government schools. But having admitted the most compelling argument for educational choice, she instead requests that private schools “get a chain and a padlock and close up shop.”

Private-school choice opponents like Flanagan never explain why they want American education to become more evenly mediocre rather than more evenly excellent. A former English teacher at the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, she contents herself with smearing academies like her ex-employer as petri dishes for fatuous socialites. This doesn’t completely work; Flanagan’s argument rests, after all, on the acknowledgement that privately educated children enjoy better schooling than their publicly educated peers. And so, she concedes that her Harvard-Westlake classes “read very good books and pressed students to think deeply about the words on the page.” She also recognizes that private education “allows [students] to dominate” academically at great colleges.

Yet she reels off ugly anecdotes as if they impugn all families who choose independent schools, and as if no horrible families let their children attend public ones. For instance, one nasty boy’s parents called Flanagan out twice for giving him an A- on a writing assignment. Another kid’s father “was so angry about his son’s French grade that he demanded an audit, with the teacher reading out the boy’s marks from her grade book while Dad angrily punched the numbers into his son’s graphing calculator.” We hear of children freaking out under pressure, as “some parents try to help their kids keep it together by asking doctors for study drugs or even sleeping pills.” We’re told of Washington, D.C.’s Sidwell Friends School, where, in 2019, parents reportedly “initiated a campaign of intimidation, surveillance, lurking on campus, and sabotage…” to ensure nothing would ever compromise their children’s elite college prospects. Racist incidents also come to light, e.g. non-black students using the N-word. (Looking back on my own schooling, I certainly heard numerous white buffoons use this slur. But I went to public school.)

Flanagan’s sketches are unflattering, but wade through them and you won’t find any ideas to better educate underprivileged students. Isn’t that the goal—or shouldn’t it be? More serious critics of choice programs like vouchers and tax credits will at least ask, do they work? Turns out, evidence that they do keeps accumulating.

Last Monday, Cato Institute education chief Neal McCluskey hosted an online forum with EdChoice fiscal researcher Marty Lueken and Kennesaw State University education economist Ben Scafidi to examine the latest such evidence. Foremost, they addressed the canard that private-school choice “siphons” money out of public education. Teachers’ unions and educrats who oppose vouchers, tax credits, or education savings accounts (ESAs) argue that these policies cost government schools by transferring revenue out of those institutions when families accept the assistance. But on balance, the programs leave public schools with more money because the outgoing kids take away variable costs like textbooks, supplies, food purchases, and sometimes school personnel.

While choice doesn’t lower government schools’ fixed costs—including buildings, land purchases, and utilities—its net financial impact on those schools remains helpful. A study Lueken published earlier this month, titled “The Fiscal Effects of Private K-12 Education Choice Programs in the United States,” analyzed 40 school-choice mechanisms across 19 states and found that they yielded between $12.1 billion and $27.8 billion in cumulative net public savings. That translates to a range of $3,200 to $7,400 per student recipient.

“When you think about it, public schools have the best fiscal deal on the planet Earth,” Scafidi observed. “Public school districts get to keep a huge fraction of funds… when students leave. No one else has that deal. Think about grocery stores: if you shop at Kroger every week for your groceries, and then next week you decide, you know what, I’m going to switch to Walmart…, in the future, Kroger doesn’t get to keep 60 percent of your grocery bill…. Think about universities: when a student leaves my university, Kennesaw State, and transfers to Georgia Tech—which happens from time to time—we lose all funding for that student: we lose state formula funding, we lose tuition and fees, we lose Pell grants…, all that funding follows the students. But public schools get to keep a huge fraction of funding for students they no longer serve, but yet they scream the loudest [that] ‘school choice is taking our money.’ It’s really silly when you think about it.” 

Lueken furthermore made the crucial point that school choice has been shown to benefit both public and nonpublic scholastic quality. Among 27 meticulous studies examining choice’s effect on the test scores of students who stay in public schools, 25 reported such students experienced slight test-score gains, one found no discernible impact, and only one detected a decrease in test scores. And, of course, research to date regarding the outcomes for student participants in vouchers, tax credits, and ESAs finds a largely positive effect, whether the measure in question is test scores, college matriculation, or parental satisfaction. (A compendium of this research can be viewed at https://www.edchoice.org/research/the-123s-of-school-choice/.)

This reality, along with many teachers’ unions’ resistance to reopening schools, is why public interest in choice is surging. Legislators in at least 29 states have introduced bills this year to help families access the nonpublic academies Flanagan vilifies.

Toward ending her essay, Flanagan asks, “Shouldn’t the schools that serve poor children be the very best schools we have?” Yes, they should. So, when state lawmakers work to ensure that America’s best schools serve more poor children, maybe applaud them?


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